When asked about their favourite work of fantasy or science fiction, very few people respond with a piece of music.
Most people suggest books, like the Harry Potter series, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or a movie or TV show, like Star Wars, Star Trek, or countless other star-somethings. I have yet to meet anyone who has named a song or a band. Until recently, if you had asked me, I wouldn’t have done so either.
Ben Cooper, the man behind the musical act Radical Face, is the reason for this change in perspective. For years now, he’s been a relative unknown in the expansive indie folk industry, but in 2014, with the help Richard Colorado and Bear Machine Records, he released Clone, one of his most ambitious projects.
With Clone, Cooper created an audio-visual experience as compelling and narrative as a film or novel, but focusing on the music.
Next time you’re watching a movie, try plugging your ears. Like my mom taught me when I got scared watching Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Lupin as a werewolf is terrifying), most of the scary stuff is tied up in the sound. It is the same with the happy stuff. And the sad stuff. And pretty much all the other stuff that makes you feel something. Like plugging your nose when you eat, plugging your ears when you watch a film mutes the flavour and dulls the experience.
On the other hand, musical artists through the years have done their best to become lyrical storytellers, bringing realms of science fiction and fantasy onto our vinyl, CDs, and iPods. Yet, aside from the most popular artists (I’m looking at you, Mr. David Bowie), the speculative rarely makes its way into mainstream music, at least not into the more common mediums, such as film and print. People love David Bowie for his music and the characters he portrayed, not the characters in his music.
Conversely, Cooper focuses on the story and his protagonist, “Subject 006,” and tells a vibrant science fiction tale about a clone who escapes captivity and gains his freedom, experiencing all the world has to offer along the way.
At this point, you’re probably reading this asking, “What’s new here? I’ve seen a musical. I’ve listened to a concept album.” Oh, this is much more than a concept album.
Cooper is not one to shy away from concept albums; indeed, he often prefers them. However, what we see in Clone is a more multi-faceted, nuanced attempt to tell a single narrative, focused on one character through a traditional beginning-middle-end plot structure. Cooper employs multiple media, specifically visual art, video, and prose, alongside the music, creating a fully formed web of narrative.
Having listened to the project more than once now, I am finding it easier to follow the narrative by only listening to the music. At the beginning, I held fast onto the descriptions of the action, and though they are purposeful and do contribute to the experience, they shouldn’t be used as a crutch.
The reason Clone is so hard to follow in terms of its narrative is that it is primarily instrumental, and where lyrics are used, they are sporadic and represent the thoughts of the protagonist, so they can only really be used as mile markers along his journey. The story is told through this character’s feelings as he interacts with his environment, feelings that are presented through the music.
I should mention now that I hate instrumental music.
I’m a big fan of stories, so when a musician bypasses the lyrical method and doesn’t use words, which are generally a fundamental building-block for stories, I get a little put out. It’s for this reason that I also don’t generally stand and look at a painting for ten minutes, or however long a concerto is supposed to last. Most instrumentals that I have heard have attempted to ‘paint a picture’ of a person, place, event, or feeling, and I, a sucker for narrative and character development, don’t tend to spend much time on these things that seem static in nature. However, by marrying instrumental music with the concept of narrative, Clone has encouraged me to take another look at this ‘static’ art form.
What Clone presents is a series of dynamic paintings, moving pictures, which could hypothetically be dissected into images of individual feelings, but when experienced in sequence, along with the accompanying media, create a story. After all, what is a story but actions and reactions to feelings? We often say the best stories are the ones that make you feel, and Clone simply removes the middle-man and plops the feelings right at your feet (or into your ear-holes, I guess).
Unfortunately, this method of musical narrative is not particularly common on its own. Upon discovering this, my first thought was “Why am I just now discovering this? Is there anything else like this out there, or is this the only one?” The answer is yes, to both.
Firstly, Clone has not been my first introduction to musical narrative, or at least attempted musical narrative, nor will it be yours, if you’ve liked anything I’ve said and choose to check this out. In fact, every time you watch a movie or TV show, the score contributes to the narrative. Far be it for me to call them music, but even laugh tracks play on the same idea of auditory cues in narrative.
At the same time, we rarely see musical narrative uncoupled from its visual narrative, which I would wager is because of its vast popularity as film score. It has found its niche so to speak—and it does a dang fine job where it is.
However, if we don’t push outside the limits and comfort zones that are established in these niches, then who knows what possibilities are going unexplored? It is only through the marriage of narrative with music, and the separation of music from its reliance on visual cues, that makes Clone so successful. It is both narrative and music, without sacrificing either, but it took a leap to get there. I guess Cooper’s Radical Face persona lives up to its name.
This isn’t to say that what Clone has done is the be-all and end-all, or even that it’s objectively good; some people might reject it as vehemently as I initially rejected instrumental music. However, the sort of work done in Clone is the sort of leaps we need if we want to keep the genres of speculative fiction fresh and thought-provoking. There are a lot of stories out there, and we’ve been looking for them for a long time. Maybe it’s time to listen.
The music, video, visual art, and prose of Clone can be found at projectclone.com (it’s separated into 6 acts, so start with Act 1: The Laboratory). Also, all the music and videos are available on YouTube, and it is encouraged that you find a playlist there and consult the prose (Act Info) on the website as necessary.
– Contributed by Stephan Goslinski